Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, And Self-Help For Managing Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the US, affecting more than 40 million adults annually. Despite their prevalence, many people may not know how to cope with symptoms. Anxiety is a highly treatable condition, and it’s possible to find success in managing anxiety and controlling emotions through mindfulness techniques, self-help practices, and psychotherapy techniques. We’ll explore some of these here.

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Could anxiety symptoms be preventing you from being your best?

What does it mean to manage anxiety?

Anxiety can manifest as persistent worry and fear due to its relationship with the fight-or-flight response, which is controlled by the nervous system. Many people associate fight-or-flight with dangerous scenarios like encountering a predator. However, an individual with anxiety may find that certain thoughts and situations that aren’t immediately threatening trigger this response as well. 

Since psychological science indicates that having the fight-or-flight response chronically engaged can negatively impact daily functioning and quality of life and lead to long-term health problems, finding ways to manage anxiety can be helpful. 

“Managing anxiety” typically refers to methods for reducing anxiety symptoms and coexisting with them in a healthy way when they can’t be reduced or eliminated. Coping with symptoms in a healthy way—such as through meditation and exercise rather than social withdrawal or substance use—can be more effective and important for both short- and long-term well-being. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness practices for anxiety 

Mindfulness meditation is based on ancient spiritual and Buddhist principles. It can be practiced on one’s own or be used in therapy under the guidance of a trained provider. One mindfulness psychology methodology, called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), is a mindfulness-based intervention developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn based on the teachings of Buddhist leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh and Philip Kapleau. This type of mindfulness training program may help clients decrease stress, manage chronic pain, reduce blood pressure, and reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms.

When practiced on one’s own, mindfulness can mean taking time regularly to be fully present in the moment—having the meta-awareness to notice what's happening within you and what's happening around you. Many people—from young people to older adults—incorporate a practice of mindfulness like meditation into the routine of their daily life to reduce anxiety and stress levels and improve emotional health. As you progress, you may practice it several times or for an extended time each day. 

Recent research on mindfulness psychology suggests that consistently practicing mindfulness meditation may change the physical makeup of various brain regions in a positive way over time. Plus, since distorted thought patterns are often the root of anxious feelings, learning to notice them and let them pass using mindfulness techniques may help reduce anxiety symptoms over time and improve psychological well-being in general.

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Mindfulness psychology tips for practicing mindfulness meditation

You can learn mindfulness, a type of psychosomatic medicine, from any number of sources, from books to free videos and audio tracks to paid apps. You can also come up with your own form of mindfulness, as it doesn’t necessarily have to be a complex or heavily structured practice. Consider the following steps to practice mindfulness on your own.  

Choose a time and place to practice mindfulness

Find a place where you can relax for a short time without being disturbed, whether it’s in your car, on a park bench, or in your kitchen. Ideally, you’ll choose somewhere comfortable and without many distractions. Some mindfulness activities can also be done on the go if you have a few minutes during your break at work or while you go for a walk. 

Notice the present moment 

You can begin shifting into mindfulness by paying attention to the current state of your body and mind. Become aware of your senses. What do you hear, see, smell, touch, or taste? Then, notice the physical feelings within your body, like any pain, numbness, or a growling stomach, and take note of your breath and your heart rate. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions, too. Try to avoid judging or categorizing any of your feelings or experiences, instead simply observing them in a neutral way.

Allow your mind to wander 

It’s natural for the mind to wander during a meditation practice. It’s usually best to show yourself compassion and empathy for this normal phenomenon and avoid judging yourself when it happens. Each time you realize you’ve gotten carried away with a thought, simply guide your attention gently back to the present moment. 

Try mindful moments as well as mindfulness practices

You can also practice mindfulness for a moment here and there throughout your day, not just when you’ve set aside specific time to sit down and focus on it. For example, you could pause to take a mindful breath or notice your body each time the phone rings, every time you walk through a doorway, or each time you wash your hands. Or, you could set a timer on your phone to remind you to pause and be mindful at a specific moment every day. Over time, mindfulness psychology research indicates that you might find it easier to mindfully check in with yourself even without reminders.

Self-help strategies for anxiety

Meeting with a mental health professional is generally recommended if you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition like anxiety. In tandem with professional treatment, you might also explore self-help strategies that may assist you in reducing anxiety naturally. Some examples include:

  • Drinking enough water

  • Eating nutrient-dense foods as often as possible

  • Exercising regularly

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Limiting caffeine

  • Building strong social connections

You might also learn cognitive techniques that could help you address anxiety symptoms when they arise. Some examples include thought-stopping and cognitive reframing, which may be additionally helpful when practiced with a trained therapist.

Psychotherapy for anxiety 

In general, patients with anxiety disorders typically respond well to treatment, and the first-line treatment for anxiety disorders is psychotherapy, or talk therapy. There are over 400 types of therapy, but the following are two of the most common for anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy used to treat many mental health symptoms and conditions, from anxiety disorders and depression to trauma and borderline personality disorder. This type of therapy often follows a step-by-step process that includes the following:

  • Noticing and identifying feelings

  • Identifying the thoughts behind the feelings

  • Challenging those underlying thoughts

  • Choosing whether to keep or let go of those thoughts

  • Replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful thoughts

  • Changing behaviors to match new, helpful thoughts

CBT may be beneficial for anxiety because fears often start with thoughts, so shifting your thoughts may help reduce your fears. As your therapist guides you through CBT, you may realize you are capable of gaining control of your mind and choosing your thoughts. 

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is another type of therapy often recommended for those with anxiety disorders. It involves gradually facing your fears over time. In safe and monitored sessions with your therapist, you can repeatedly show yourself that exposure to your worst fears may not lead to the disastrous consequences you might expect. 

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Could anxiety symptoms be preventing you from being your best?

Finding a therapist

If you’re ready to meet with a therapist to address your anxiety symptoms, you can begin by deciding whether you’d like to meet with someone in person or online. If you prefer face-to-face sessions, you can search for a therapist in your area, ask your insurance company for a list of covered providers, or ask your doctor for a referral. If you’d prefer to meet with a licensed provider virtually from anywhere you have an internet connection, you might consider a platform like BetterHelp.

Online therapy can have many potential benefits, particularly for people with anxiety. For example, some find the prospect of traveling to a new place and waiting in a waiting room to be anxiety-producing. Others may find that they simply feel more comfortable discussing their anxieties when they can control their own environment. Plus, research indicates the potential effectiveness of online therapy for anxiety. One review, for example, suggests that online CBT led to a 50% improvement in symptoms for participants with various mental illnesses, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder as well as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Takeaway

Mindfulness, therapy, and self-care are a few approaches that may help you reduce anxiety and feel more in control of difficult thoughts and emotions. Partaking in all three may offer even greater benefits. If you want to learn how to combine these strategies and get support for anxiety symptoms, consider contacting a therapist in your area or online for further guidance.
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